The Strange Impact of Rex Ryan on Sunday's Packers-Vikings Game
I bet you’ve never considered there to be much in common between an NFL quarterback and the Christmas cookies you’ll consume this winter. One is a human being, and the other is a combination of ingredients from a grocery store.
Both can be great on their own. Both are better with the right complements – a good running attack or a glass of milk.
But even the best cookies and the best quarterbacks aren’t good in excess.
In the Minnesota Vikings’ 28-12 season opening victory Sunday, quarterback Kirk Cousins threw just ten passes. Cousins received $1.61 million Tuesday in his first of 17 installments on a $27,500,000 base salary, about $161,000 per pass attempt against Atlanta.
Does it matter that Minnesota seems to be using Cousins less often in 2019?
NFL contracts and their value are difficult to understand, but here’s something simple: only one team pays another player a greater percentage of their salary cap than the Vikings pay Kirk Cousins. Minnesota is paying Cousins to play at an elite level, but their strategy (at least after one game) suggests Cousins is anything but elite.
It all beings with the Vikings head coach, and their identity as a team. Now in his fifth season, Mike Zimmer coordinated some of the league’s best defenses for two decades. The Vikings gave him his first opportunity to be head coach, and he brought stability and a renewed focus on defense to the team.
After four full seasons, it’s clear Zimmer’s formula to win focuses on running the ball. Compare the Vikings’ average rushing yards in losses and victories from 2014 through 2019’s Week 1:
When the Vikings win, they’re rushing for over 130 yards and their opponents barely reach 80 yards. In losses, their opponents outgain them on the ground. Notice how the Vikings run for nearly 15 more yards in losses than their opponents in losses, however. This would suggest Zimmer’s philosophy to the offense is to run the ball until nearly all hope is lost.
The Vikings under Zimmer are a defense-first team. The salary cap limits a team’s ability to bring in and keep talented players, and Minnesota made a decision to allocate almost one out of every seven dollars spent on a quarterback they don’t want to use. If they win a Super Bowl with Cousins, this will retrospectively look like a tremendously brilliant decision. But right now, it’s a head-scratcher.
I say that because of how the Vikings won on Sunday. Minnesota accomplished something on offense that happens about ten times a season – they pulled off a Rex Ryan Special.
The Rex Ryan Special, or How To Lose a Game 2 out of 10 Times
When a team bases its identity on defense, their common offensive strategy is to run the ball. Generally, these teams have head coaches – like Zimmer – who come from a defensive background. Their quarterbacks are game managers or on their rookie contracts.
After analyzing almost 6,000 NFL games from 2008 through 2019’s Week 1, this ideal phenomenon has happened just 206 times in 5,632 games. And 10 percent of the time, Rex Ryan has been on the sidelines as coach.
That’s why I’m calling this ideal scenario for defensive-minded, run-first teams:
Run for 100 or more yards
+ pass 21 or fewer times
= win 80% of the time
Since 2008, if your team puts up a Rex Ryan Special on offense, you’ve got an 83 percent chance of winning a game. Over 16 games, a team with a Rex Ryan Special each week would finish a season 13-3.
It’s just not possible to consistently run the ball so well and pass the ball so infrequently, however. The New Orleans Saints haven’t even pulled it off once, and they employed the long-haired brother of Rex, Rob Ryan, for a spell. Since 2010, one team finished a season with more than four Rex Ryan Specials in a season – the 2015 Buffalo Bills, coached by none other than Ryan himself.
Here’s the hope for Vikings fans – teams that can accomplish this feat more than twice in a season tend to be quite successful. 11 of 20 teams with three or more Rex Ryan Specials in a season have made the playoffs. Two have made it as far as the conference championship games in the playoffs.
From the outside, watching a team with a game manager at quarterback and a solid running game can be maddening and frustrating. In a Rex Ryan Special, teams run the ball two times for every pass. Every other offense threw the ball twice for every time they ran the ball (and that’s counting quarterback scrambles as running plays, when they’re called as a passing play in the huddle).
What does this mean for the Packers on Sunday?
Give all 32 teams the 10 full seasons from 2008 through 2018 – that’s 320 total opportunities – to put together back-to-back Rex Ryan Specials. It’s a feat only eleven teams have accomplished, and when they do, it’s happened late in the season.
Only two teams have been able to pull off back-to-back Rex Ryan Specials in September since 2008. Let’s take a closer look at them:
2010 Pittsburgh Steelers, Weeks 2 & 3. Pittsburgh changed over much of its offensive coaching staff in January 2010, and April brought bad news: a suspension for their star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Without Big Ben, the Steelers relied heavily on their running game and used backups Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch in their Week 2 and 3 wins over the Titans and Buccaneers. Roethlisberger’s four game suspension ended, and the Steelers wouldn’t put up another Rex Ryan Special the rest of the way. Pittsburgh lost in Super Bowl XLV to the Packers.
2012 Seattle Seahawks, Weeks 2 & 3. This Seahawks team had one of the nastiest defenses in NFL history. Football Outsiders ranked them seventh best in the past two decades of football. On offense, Seattle had rookie quarterback Russell Wilson and top tier running back Marshawn Lynch. They didn’t need a ton of points to win these games, as their defense allowed a combined 19 in these two weeks. (Author’s note: In Week 3, the Seahawks lost on Monday night to the Packers after safety M.D. Jennings intercepted a Hail Mary pass in the endzone as time expired. Strangely, the NFL chose to count it as a touchdown instead of a turnover. It meant Green Bay lost the game, unfortunately. Someone should write the NFL about getting these records changed – accuracy is very important.)
The 2019 Vikings defense is likely better than the 2010 Steelers, and certainly worse than the 2012 Seahawks. The key difference between Minnesota and these two teams is the quarterback:
The Steelers were trying to get through their first four games by any means necessary in 2010. Their offense was full of skilled receivers for Roethlisberger to target – Emmanuel Sanders, Heath Miller, Mike Wallace, even a young Antonio Brown – but the new offensive coaching staff took a conservative, run-first approach to weather the first month of the season.
In September 2012, it was shocking to see Seattle starting their fourth-round rookie at quarterback over the highly paid Matt Flynn. Wilson hadn’t yet begun to play at the high level we know today. The focal point of this offense was Lynch – two years removed from his “Beast Quake” in the playoffs against the Saints, he was in the prime of his career at 26 years old.
The Vikings have too much invested in Kirk Cousins and his receivers – Kyle Rudolph, Stefon Diggs and Adam Theilen – and not enough on their offensive line to continue this offensive strategy. Sure, they’re going to be a run-first offense in 2019. But not to the tune of passing attempts in the teens. It’s likely as the season continues that Minnesota may put up another Rex Ryan Special, but don’t expect it to come Sunday at Lambeau Field.